Category Archives: PR

Opinion: Google+ – has Google done it again?

A long time ago, in a company blog far, far away (don’t look for it, it isn’t there anymore*), I wrote about how Google had dropped the ball with Wave & Buzz. Rushing to judgement on Google+ is not smart, but I’m seeing a lot of the same signs and I think Google have a very small window of opportunity in which to make things right before their adoption rates start to atrophy.

Full disclosure: I love Google. They’ve given me free email that works better than anything else I’ve had, they solved the problem of porting contacts to a new mobile phone with Contacts (from an hour plus hassle to mere seconds in one fell swoop), the Calendar, Contacts and email all play nicely together and are bloody easy to set up on Blackberrys and other phones. They’ve given us Android and Chrome. And they have this search engine thingwhich is quite handy.Their maps have saved me navigational humiliation on many an occasion. I’ve never had to pay a penny for any of those things, too – so what’s not to like?

The problem with Wave and Buzz wasn’t the products themselves, necessarily. It was how we were introduced to them. Other Google products were developed by damned fine engineers, then released into a beta or Labs version, then tested & gradually released. I remember when Gmail invites were genuinely hard to come by, – and it was for more than just a few days, too. This process allowed engineering types to gradually absorb real user feedback, tweak, redevelop and re-release – it was a productive loop. Similarly, products and add-ons that got released to indifference would eventually slip quietly off the Labs list and disappear.That period also gave time for users to explore, experiment and develop a genuine love for the product.

But Wave & Buzz both did something that Google had never really done before (with the possible exception of Chrome at the time): they appeared in a traditional, PR-heavy blaze of publicity – they were announced as the finished, real deal. And, of course, they weren’t. Had Google released Wave to interested parties in a beta, they would have found all the little things that annoyed people or were just plain non-user-friendly. Perhaps by the time it reached a public release it would have been easier to use and adoption would have been steadier. Buzz was just a Twitter “me-too,” with seemingly only its ability to integrate into Gmail as anything like a USP.

"I would show you my manboobs if I thought you'd buy into the product"

People use phrases like “organic growth” far too much without really understanding what it means. Gmail was awesome in the light of the Hotmails and Yahoo!s that preceded it. Suddenly here was a nicely searchable, easy to use mail interface with seemingly unlimited storage space – it was so good that people became evangelists for no other reason than “this is good – you would love it.” By dropping a top-heavy marketing campaign on an unsuspecting public, expectations are raised, often unrealistically; there’s just no room for users to become enthusiastic of their own accord – all the enthusiasm has been generated for them. So there’s less incentive to talk about the product and far more interest in picking it apart. Instead of being able to help fix the holes, which happens with lab products, it’s too late – it’s a release version, it’s not that great, we all move on to something else.

Google+, then, has some great things going for it – I think “circles” is a decent answer to the definition of social media “friendships,” for example – but it also has a lot of holes. Private messaging is clunky, the mobile app side of things is shockingly bad (iPhone but not iPad or Touch? Really?) but most important of all is the lack of an open API – which would have helped solve all of those problems much quicker than Google can themselves.

What they should have done was test in private / semi-private for longer. They could have added / withdrawn functionality as required, let developers play with the API and start building apps to connect the dots. User feedback would have improved the usability for ordinary, non-techy types and by the time it reached a release version it would have been better. Those invites should then have been let out much more slowly to ensure that users were seeing the benefits and continue the tweaking at a reasonable pace.

But the main thing Google have forgotten is that there was no aching need for a new social network in the public-at-large. Much is made of Facebook’s privacy and other issues, but those are still issues that interest a relatively small slice of its user base. Diaspora’s privacy-hugging release has not dented Facebook one iota – there simply aren’t 100s of millions of people waiting for a replacement, they’re happy where they are. Likewise Twitter. Like Buzz, we now have a product with some natty features but we aren’t sure why we should trade up. Like Wave, we have other things that do that job for us – do I really need to learn how to use something new..?

We still love this stuff, right?

And key to all of it is a lack of mobile functionality. This wouldn’t matter so much if there was an open API and developers could start getting it in shape. The truth is, many developers will be better at mobile interfaces than Google. Despite all the time they’ve had – and their involvement in Android – Google is still hit and miss on mobile. In fact one respected angel investor has decried Google as almost a spent force, and not least because of a failure to get mobile working for them

It surprises me that people think something like a social network can be marketed like anything else – it’s a particular product that demands social acceptance and, yes, organic growth. That’s how you know it’s good, because it’s inherently “social.” Google+ is showing fast growth because they’re tapping into an existing Google customer base, within which is a voluminous tech-savvy bunch who have enough doubts about Facebook to want to try something new. I think their first 20 million users is easy. To reach 100 million they’re going to have to overcome a lot of the issues mentioned above as well as the fact that Twitter’s existing base seem happy enough. It’s not the Facebook-doubting Google-lovers they have to convince; it’s all those people’s friends that are on Facebook, because if they don’t leave or migrate, then those same tech-savvy types will just go back to where all their friends are.

Google had a way of working that set them apart from the competition. Whilst Microsoft was dumping effectively unfinished products into the market (poor iterations of Internet Explorer, Windows Vista, early Windows mobiles, vast swathes of clunky, memory-sapping  software), and relying on their brand and clout to sell them in, Google were the happy engineers, testing and tweaking and as close to their marketplace as they needed to be to succeed. Wave & Buzz looked like Microsoft launches, not Google; Google+ looks halfway between the two. If it works, it will be because the engineering side of their character shines through and they address quickly the issues that will hamper growth.

Google stands at a crossroads. Whilst their success as a multinational brand is probably unlikely to change in the light of advertising-based performance, their success as innovators may be in the balance. I hope they take the right path.

*Because mixing film references is fun, OK?


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When Hari Got Sullied

I’ve written before about what I see as the danger inherent in subscribing to a particular set of beliefs. The Johann Hari saga has been yet one more example of why this is, frankly, spot-on.

We’ve got all excited about phone-hacking in the last few weeks and rightly so. In comparison, Johann Hari’s little saga has had relatively little coverage but it is part of the same problem. Politicians are meant to respect the Rule of Law. You have principles about how people go about their business? They apply to you too. I quite like Johann Hari’s writing and his passion, but he’s let the latter get the better of him and, as a result, his work has suffered. Every time I try and cut him some slack there’s another revelation of some appalling journalistic practices which are indefensible. If I’m going to be pissed at Murdoch’s minions, I have to be pissed at Hari too.

The problem is, people love to kick their enemies, but they feel uncomfortable turning the attention to one of their own – it’s as if they feel it weakens their point of view to have one of its exponents taken down. This, to my eyes, undermines their legitimacy. You can’t forgive Cameron for something you’d never have forgiven Gordon Brown; you can’t forgive the Guardian something you wouldn’t forgive the Mail. Yet, a long line of well-known Twitterati lined up to defend him, seemingly willing to overlook his misdeeds for the benefit of the bigger picture. And I’m not naming them here because…

Then there’s another side to it – using ad hominem (i.e. personal) attacks to undermine a point of view. You see this all day long in politics – that person’s point of view is invalid because he used to be a socialist; this MP’s point on unemployment is illegitimate because he has a second home. And the unravelling of Hari’s work has been similar – a lot of the attacks seem motivated by a desire to give him back some of the kickings he’s given other people. Hari has done some brilliant things – watch him tear Richard Littlejohn a new arse – and it’s a shame to think that we have to judge him as either “good” or “bad,” wholly legitimate or wholly illegitimate. Human beings are rarely so easily categorised.

I must admit, as time has gone on and more and more of his work – including his Orwell Prize piece – has been torn down, I feel less like making this point but it needs to be made, irrespective of Hari:

You have to separate the art and the artist.

Just because someone is a total arse, it does not make their work illegitimate. James Brown was a wife-beater but his music is still amazing. Picasso was a misogynist and womaniser but you wouldn’t want to take all his paintings off the walls and disregard him from art history because of it. Just because you love Michael Jackson’s music doesn’t mean you have to defend him as a person – I am constantly baffled as to why people can’t separate the two things. Hari is an idiot but it doesn’t mean everything he’s ever said or done is illegitimate. That will come down to an examination of the facts alone.

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Posted by on July 22, 2011 in Journalism, PR, Social Media, Society


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What can the games industry learn from the demise of myspace?

Remember myspace? It was huge, once. Just like the music industry, it had a good few years to work out how to monetise phenomenal demand for its products & services on the web and, despite a head start that should have seen it luxuriating in cash and ivory back-scratchers, it failed. myspace will probably get another shot under new ownership but is now back in 18th place on the starting grid, with Facebook,  Soundcloud, Last FM, Spotify, Bandcamp & others now way ahead. Like Friends Reunited before it, it has somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. How the hell did that happen?

Yeah. You know it.

There are lots of reasons, but I’d like to look at it from the point of view of communications. What myspace did brilliantly at the beginning was connect fans to bands. That may sound simple, but think how things happened before – you could buy a band’s music, you could see them at a gig (and maybe grab a quick autograph), you could read an interview with them in a mag or paper. If you joined a mailing list or fanclub then, once a quarter you might receive a badge, a limited edition EP, a “letter” (written by a press officer) and that was about it. That was as close as you could get.

And then came the digital age. And communications needed to be quicker and there needed to be more to fill the ever-increasing spaces available. Whilst some bands need to retain an air of mystique (some bands would certainly not benefit from the fans knowing too much about what kind of people they really are), others rely on emotional and personal connections with their fanbase. Along came Artic Monkeys, who seemed to just be natural communicators, and suddenly “myspace made them famous.” This was just a myth perpetuated by people who didn’t really understand what was going on. They were just a great band with a penchant for communications. it’s just a medium. If you have good content, it works; if you don’t, it doesn’t.

But then the music industry saw what was happening and all the people who stood to lose from direct communications between bands and fans stepped in; suddenly, it was de rigeur to have your press officer running your myspace page. You could tell because everything they posted had lots of exclamation marks!!!! At the end of everything!!!!!!!! Cos, like, that makes a 35 year old PR seem down with the kids, right?!?!?!?!

Gone were the real connections between human beings, and back into the land of the glorified press release we sailed. Churnalism of the worst kind, dressed up as humanity. A certain kind of fan wants a certain kind of connection – and this opportunity was lost, frankly. Now, watch those Twitter accounts for more of the same.

What does this have to do with gaming? An awful lot. The games industry is structured not dissimilarly from the music industry: first, there are the artists who actually develop the games; These artists are then often signed to a larger publisher who, in turn, are signed to a global distributor that is responsible for getting games into the shops all over the world and the multi-million dollar marketing budgets that support it. But then there comes a problem. Those giant distributors are used to controlling the communications – they want consistent PR and marketing messaging and they (often) want it globally. That’s too simplistic a view, in my opinion. The way the US market views first person shooters may be rather different from how the Japanese see it. But with the interwebs being, y’know, global, any discussion / comment / sneak preview / beta material is going to end up in every market in minutes. That doesn’t suit the old-fashioned “command and control” mentality.

Think, then, about games consumers. They range from the “buys a couple of games a year” Call Of Duty guy (this century’s equivalent of Mondeo man) to the hardcore FPS / RPG devotee who needs to be the first to get 100% completion, write a walkthrough and post it on IRC. Like any market, the needs of each segment are rather different. The latter has no real interest in what the likes of EA, PlayStation or Activision have to say, just like your average indie-consuming Camdenite doesn’t care much what Universal Music have to say. The kind of communications controlled by the big boys is what ends up in mainstream magazines and newspapers. They talk the language of the consumer-at-large, the mainstream thinkers. And that’s fine. But when they try and communicate with the hardcore, they almost always get it wrong – they just speak different languages.

Media like Twitter have opened up new possibilities but they require a different language – one spoken by the “artist,” who is closer to the market in mentality than a corporate communicator can ever be. Take recent EA release “Bulletstorm.” It’s a decent enough game, but one of the gameplay features makes a traditional multiplayer “deathmatch” mode impossible. To your mainstream COD player, this is what multiplayer is all about, and it was a likely barrier to purchase. And early on (I’ve been following this one since the beginning) fans were expressing concern about the lack of a deathmatch mode. After all, what is more satisfying than killing complete strangers? I’ve been hugely impressed by the way Polish development team People Can Fly and their direct publishers Epic have communicated over the last 18 months or so. Sure, there’ve been the stunts, the E3 stage and all manner of mass comms. But underneath it all Adrian Chmielarz (PCF) and Cliff Bleszinski and others from Epic were talking direct to the fans on Twitter and through their various blogs all along. At every stage of development, you got the feeling that they were listening and that it was affecting the way the game was being developed. By keeping the core happy, the buzz on the game was far more positive than if it had been left to a mainstream communicator – this was not a straightforward title and it was treated accordingly. Expectations that took a year to form ahead of release were well-managed.

Meantime, look what happened with Blizzard, who make Starcraft & World Of Warcraft, two of the hugest games in the universe. Last year – seemingly out of nowhere – they announced an end to anonymity on forums and games. People would have to post under their own names or not at all. No doubt some would think this is a good idea, but you could talk to any gamer in any forum in the galaxy and know that people cherish anonymity – gaming is (partly) about escapism; we’ve all been the kind of heroes on screen we could never hope to be in real life. And so, their asses got handed to them on a plate. Aside from a mass scream of alarm, various Anonymous hacks led to Blizzard board members seeing their home addresses (and more) posted online as an example as to just why anonymity is a cherished thing. Big fail. But if they’d floated the idea properly amongst their market first, they would have known that it was preposterous and it never would have happened.

And this is the difference – where all communications used to be one way (“Here’s something amazing! It’s available over there! Go buy it!”), the two-way traffic engendered by digital communications & social media has changed everything, not just because of the change in direction but because of the speed of communication itself. It propagates like crazy. Today’s games consumers are not just purchasers, they’re market researchers, developers, ideas guys, marketing evangelists and players all rolled into one. They don’t “get” the game on the day of release, they got it a year before.

You only need to look at the film industry, which – for years – has used previews, film festivals and film-lover networks as a matter of course.

Where Sony hung onto crucial information whilst the PlayStation Network crumbled around them they missed a load of crucial opportunities: the chance to capitalise on the goodwill giving people a free online experience gets you; the ability to harness the power of the crowd in solving their problems; the chance, perhaps, to coax the  likes of Anonymous  to help track the culprits who brought down their gametime (instead of pointing the finger – again, nobody in their right mind would think this was an Anonymous thing). And now they’re stranded in a very leaky boat.

We used to talk about communications planning in a purely tactical way – “Here’s the new product, what we gonna say about it? And to whom?” But that doesn’t cut it any more. Communication networks for talking with the consumer should already be in place, so whatever new game comes along, the guys with the wallets at the ready are helping shape it from day one. Some games lend themselves to such communications by their very nature – Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series relies on globally-produced data from fan networks to make the game so realistic, so it’s no surprise that they communicate so effectively across everything from forums to Twitter and all points in between. Likewise Gabe Newell at Valve. You look at these guys and think “they’re one of us…” And, indeed, we are one of them.

So whilst myspace’s sun sets, unknowing if it will rise again for a new dawn, communicators in the games industry take heed: if you’re thinking in product lifecycles, you might well be the next dinosaur headed for extinction. Your fans are out there and they’re clamouring for attention – just don’t think that a press release alone will satisfy them.


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